All schools have a duty to have a complaints procedure and to publicise it to parents and pupils.
This document sets out Kent County Council’s guidance for schools on complaints handling. At the end of the document there is a model complaints procedure that schools can adopt and suggested wording for information on complaints for the public. Governors should read the guidance and make any necessary adjustments to the model procedure to meet the individual needs of the school.
The legislation on complaints about Kent maintained schools changed in 2010. The Local Authority no longer has a statutory role in complaints about schools.
Complaints procedures should not be used for appeals and referrals that fall under other procedures and legislation and which are covered by other guidance, including:
- Special Educational Needs
- Staff Grievances
- Child Protection
It is recommended that the governing body ensures that any third party providers offering community services or facilities on the school premises or using school facilities for any purpose have their own complaints procedures in place.
Guidance on complaints handling
Parents and pupils should always know how they can raise concerns or lodge a formal complaint. Complaints procedures should be easily accessible and well publicised.
A summary of how the school deals with complaints should be included in the information that is given to new parents when their children join the school. Schools should also prepare leaflets for parents explaining how problems are dealt with and how the complaints procedures work. (Appendices D and E provide suggested wording.)
Schools should consider whether they need to make the procedures available in languages other than English and whether audio-cassette, Braille or large-print versions are necessary.
At regular intervals parents should be reminded of the system.
2. Procedures should be as speedy as possible – consistent and fair to all concerned
Each stage of the procedure should have known time limits. Where it is not possible to meet these, the complainant should be kept informed of progress.
3. Support for complainant
It is important that parents know that at any stage of the procedure they can be accompanied by a friend, relative or representative and to know where they can go for information, advice and advocacy, if required.
4. Support for staff
Staff complained about must be treated fairly. They should have the opportunity to put their case and receive appropriate support; a colleague may accompany them at any stage but it would not be appropriate to involve someone from outside the school from whom confidential pupil information should be withheld. There is a crucial balance to be maintained between supporting the individual so that his/her rights are maintained and reputation protected, and investigating a complaint thoroughly and impartially. The complaints procedure is distinct from formal disciplinary proceedings for staff and this will need to be made clear to all concerned. How ever there may be occasions where a complaint leads to a disciplinary procedure which puts the complaints process on hold. If so, the complainant should be informed of this, without going into details, and updated regularly on likely further delay. After the disciplinary process is completed it will be necessary to decide what further response to the complainant is required.
It is very important to treat all concerns and complaints with discretion. It is vital that parents feel confident that their complaint will not penalise their child. However, a complainant will need to be aware that some information will have to be shared with those involved in order that the complaint can be investigated.
6. Anonymous complaints
Anonymous complaints should not be automatically disregarded. They may relate to a serious issue which may subsequently resurface. It should be at the Headteacher’s or Governing Body’s discretion as to whether the gravity of an anonymous complaint warrants an investigation. A copy of every anonymous complaint and note of the decision should be retained on file.
If the outcome of the complaints procedure shows the school is at fault, it is often sufficient to provide redress in the form of an acknowledgement that the complaint is upheld together with an appropriate apology. It may be appropriate to offer one or more of: an explanation, a promise that the event complained of will not recur, an undertaking to review school policies or practices in the light of the complaint, or, in appropriate circumstances, financial redress. Fear of litigation should not prevent a school from admitting to parents when mistakes have been made, but it is recommended that advice be sought if the complainant threatens legal action.
8. Staff Awareness and Training
All staff should be aware of the procedures, as potentially many will be involved with handling complaints, especially at the informal level. To be confident in doing so depends on them having clear information about the procedures, reassurances that senior staff are committed to the procedures and some basic training in dealing with people who are upset or angry (see Appendix B). All staff should also have clear information about individual staff roles and responsibilities so that parents do not get continually passed from one to another.
9. Record Keeping
Complaints should be recorded and monitored regularly by staff and governors. It is recommended that recording should begin at the point when an initial concern or complaint cannot be resolved immediately but needs some investigation and/or consultation with others in school and a subsequent report back to the parent.
Recording at the earliest stage need only be a very basic record of the complaint, giving the date, name of parent and general nature of the complaint. A pro-forma or a “comments and complaints” book could be used. Whatever system is used, it should be consistent and understood by the staff and records retained with due regard for confidentiality.
A Staged Approach
There should be two stages to the complaints procedure. While it is good practice to encourage an open culture where parents feel able to raise concerns informally with a teacher, you should not introduce this as a third stage into the process.
The First Contact
There needs to be clarity as to the difference between a concern and acomplaint. Taking informal concerns seriously at an early stage and addressing them promptly will reduce the number that develops into formal complaints. There are many occasions where concerns are resolved straight away through the class teacher, headteacher or administrative staff, depending on who is approached first. Parents must feel able to raise concerns with members of staff without formality, either in person, over the telephone or in writing. On occasion it may be appropriate for someone to act on behalf of a parent and this must be taken into consideration.
It may be unclear at first whether a parent is asking a question or expressing an opinion rather than making a complaint. A parent may want a preliminary discussion about an issue to help decide whether he or she wishes to take it further. Ultimately, parents have a statutory right to complain and if they wish an issue to be handled as a complaint then this is the approach that has to be taken. Staff views as to the seriousness of the issue should not be a deciding factor. Where there is uncertainty, the parent should be asked if they want the issue treated as a formal complaint.
Stage 1: Referral to the Headteacher
Once it is clear that the concern is a definite complaint it should be investigated according to school guidelines (see model procedure attached at Appendix A) to ensure consistency and to make sure that nothing happens which could make it difficult for later stages to proceed smoothly.
In some cases the headteacher may already have been involved in looking at the matter; in other cases it may be his/her first involvement and in a large school it may be appropriate to delegate the investigation at this stage to another member of staff. What is important is that a staged procedure exists which reassures complainants that their complaint will be heard by more than one person, and that headteachers ensure that their involvement will not predominate at every stage.
It should be noted that in some cases headteachers will have been involved in the matter informally or the complaint may be against them, in which cases Stage 1 should be carried out by the Chair of Governors. In other cases the Headteacher is advised to become involved in complaints at Stage 1.
Stage 2: Review by the Governing Body
Most complaints are resolved at the first stage but it is important that there is a robust mechanism at the second stage and that governing bodies are well prepared to deal with them. KCC Governor Services provide training for Chairs and Clerks, and complaints training is also provided by the Local Government Ombudsman.
At this stage schools may wish to seek advice from the Local Authority or diocese as appropriate. Governors can also contact The Local Government Ombudsman for advice via the Assistant Ombudsman, Sue Machin on 024 7682 0033 or by email to S.Machin@lgo.org.uk, or the Senior Investigator, Jennifer Randell on 024 7682 0025 or email to J.Randell@lgo.org.uk. The LGO can provide a useful impartial view on the issues.
It is important that this review is not only independent and impartial but that it is seen to be so. Complaints should always be considered by a panel, not by the full governing body. Some governors may have previous knowledge of the problem which led to the complaint and would be unable to give fair, unbiased consideration to the issue, whilst if a complaint resulted in disciplinary action against a member of staff it would be necessary for there to be sufficient governors with no prior involvement to form a staff dismissal committee and possibly a staff dismissal appeal committee.
The panel hearing should not be adversarial but should aim to provide a non – threatening environment in which resolution can be reached. In deciding the agenda, who should attend, the number of attendees, and in taking questions from attendees, the Chair should carefully take into consideration the need to avoid any attendee feeling intimidated by the proceedings. The Chair may wish to set time limits for presentations. In exceptional circumstances the Chair may decide that the panel should hear the complainant or a particular witness separately. For example if the complaint is about bullying, the Chair may decide to give the pupil the opportunity to put their case to the panel before others are admitted to the meeting to avoid a confrontational and distressing situation. In such cases the panel will need to ensure that allegations made are shared with the other parties so that they are able to respond.
It is recommended that the panel appoint a clerk to minute the meeting. The clerk would be the contact point for the complainant and be required to:
- Set the date, time and venue of the hearing and ensure that the dates are convenient to all parties and that the venue and proceedings are accessible.
- Collate any written material and send it to the parties in advance of the hearing
- Meet and welcome the parties as they arrive at the hearing
- Record the proceedings
- Notify all parties of the panel’s decision
The aim of the meeting should be to resolve the complaint and achieve reconciliation between the school and complainant. However, it has to be recognised that sometimes it may only be possible to establish facts and make recommendations that will satisfy the complainant that their complaint has at least been taken seriously.
Two or more schools may wish to consider coming to an arrangement to hold joint Governor panels to hear complaints. This has been tried and tested at a number of Kent schools and proved to be successful. Written guidance can be found on TrustWeb, and Governor Services can also provide advice on how to go about setting up joint panels.
What if the complaint is about a governor?
The Chair of Governors can still address the complaint. If the complaint is about the Chair of Governors it should be referred to a member of the governing body. If you receive a complaint about the governing body as a whole, you should contact the Area Education Officer at Kent County Council or Governors’ Support for advice. The Local Government Ombudsman is also available for advice at any stage of the process.
Stage 3: Review by the Local Government Ombudsman
From September 2010 parents in Kent have been able to go to the Local Government Ombudsman if they feel they have an unresolved complaint and have suffered injustice as a result of the a ctions of a governing body.
The Local Government Ombudsman was established over 35 years ago to handle complaints about Local Authority services including education and children’s services, such as school admissions and special educational needs. The Local Authority no longer has a formal role in the consideration of a complaint about a school.
How does the Ombudsman work?
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the Ombudsman will not deal with a complaint unless the school has had a proper opportunity to consider it and respond. Since 2002, all schools have been required to have a complaints procedure and to make parents and pupils aware of it.
Someone with a complaint can telephone, write to, or email the Advice Team on 0300 061 0614, email firstname.lastname@example.org , address PO Box 4771, Coventry, CV40EH. The advisers will pass the complaint to a specialist team who will evaluate it and speak to the parent or pupil before deciding how to proceed.
At any stage the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) can decide whether or not to pursue a complaint. If the decision has been made to pursue a complaint, the parent or pupil will be written to with an explanation of the reasons. If the complaint is to be pursued, the Ombudsman will contact the complainant to confirm their understanding of the complaint and how it will be investigated. There is an aim to reach a decision as quickly as possible, especially when time is an important factor.
Both parties will be kept informed and will have an opportunity to comment on the thinking before a decision has been made. If recommendations are made, the governing body must consider the decision and respond. If unsatisfied with the response from the governing body, the LGO can require an “adverse findings notice” be published in a local paper.
The LGO’s prime focus in dealing with complaints about schools is the needs and best interests of the child and his/her continuing relationship with the school.
From 1 August 2012 the role currently the responsibility of the LGO will be undertaken by the Secretary of State for Education.
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